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The Environmental Impact Of Electronic Waste

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The Environmental Impact of Electronic Waste

In today's high paced modern world, technology is moving faster and faster and boosting the speed of our everyday lives. Every eight months there is a new model of some type of technological device reaching the market and the old is being discarded as it is unable to keep up with our fast paced society. Where have the millions of old, unwanted computers and other electronics gone? Many have suspected, that relatively few old PC's are being recycled and that most are stored in warehouses, basements, and closets or have met there end in municipal landfills or incinerators. In recent years a great deal of attention has been devoted to the environmental impact of computers and other electronic equipment as these items pose a massive problem for municipal landfills and hazardous effects to human life.

Users' manuals can be a pain to read, nevertheless are pretty handy, they cover most of everything we need to know about newly purchased equipment. What is not covered in the users' manual are the toxic chemicals and heavy metals that go into computers and other electronic devices, nor the waste computer-manufacturing generates. Of the approximately one thousand different substances included in a typical PC, every computer contains five to eight pounds of lead. Exposure to lead and other toxic ingredients, such as mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and some plastics, may stun brain development, disrupt hormone functions, cause cancer, or affect reproduction (Slone, 2000).

Manufacturers combine lead; the leading toxic material found in electronic equipment, with tin to form solder, which is used in the production of circuit boards found inside electronic products. Lead is highly toxic and can harm children and developing fetuses, even at low levels of exposure. Brominated flame retardants, used in circuit boards and plastic casing, do not break down easily and build up in the environment. Long term exposure can lead to impaired learning and memory functions. They have also been known to interfere with thyroid and estrogen hormone systems and exposure in the womb has been linked to behavioral problems. Rechargeable batteries, contacts and switches found in computers and other electrical devices may contain lead, mercury and cadmium. Consequently, these toxins can bioaccumulate in the environment, particularly within the food chain, which is the major route of exposure. This route of exposure is known to be a possible health risk, primarily affecting the kidneys and bones. A Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) is the main component found in a television and computer monitors containing lead and exposure can cause intellectual impairment in children and damage to the nervous, blood and reproductive system in adults (SVCT, 1999).

The quantity of discarded electronic products around the world has sky rocketed of the past few years. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over twenty million computers become obsolete in 1998, but only thirteen percent were reused or recycled. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition released a report last February predicting that five million computers will become obsolete between 1997 and 2007, resulting in six billion pounds of plastic and one and a half billion pounds of lead. The Worldwatch Institute reported in its annual "Vital Signs" report that nearly three million tons of electronic waste was landfilled in 1997 (O'Connell, 2002). Electronic waste is now the fastest growing element of solid waste, which makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide. Due largely to the toxicity of electronic waste, there is a growing concern of what exactly is being done to help deal with the municipal landfills that are being contaminated and potential health related issues that could arise if not dealt with in a timely manner.

In the past, landfills were located in areas thought to have little value. These areas include gravel pits, ravine, swamps or other lands. Residence and commerce waste was often dumped in these areas. Unfortunately, these practices lead to health and environmental concerns. These landfills leach toxins into groundwater used for drinking. Other sites have exposed waste; or fire hazards from seeping landfill gases. Old landfills had no liners to prevent environmental contamination and when it became full, they were typically covered with loose topsoil. Rain water and precipitation would seep into the waste and carry chemicals to the groundwater below. The chemicals contaminating groundwater vary among landfills. Common contaminates found in groundwater near these sites are chlorinated solvents. Some of the solvents, such as tetrachlorethylene, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride, can pose a cancer risk at high exposure levels. Likewise, incinerators emit toxic air pollutants including dioxins (Landes, 1997). Today, modern landfills are designed for safety, supposedly designed to prevent environmental contamination. They are enclosed with special covers and liners o prevent rainwater from entering and exiting a landfill. Modern landfills also use monitoring wells to detect any problems. These wells are located at the outside edge of the landfill.

According to Dr. Fred Lee, "detection in new landfills can be difficult since the only way to know this is detection in the monitoring wells. The likelihood of a monitoring well at a single or double lined landfill detecting an initial leak is very small." Monitoring wells should be located in areas most likely to detect contamination. Old and new landfills are typically located next to large bodies of water (i.e., rivers, lakes, bays, ect.), making leakage detection and remediation extremely difficult. Detection by monitoring wells can also be very difficult at lined landfills. Lee says, liners were found to be unreliable, since relatively small holes in plastic sheeting lead to high leakage rates. Even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.

E-waste is not cheap nor easily disposed of. The vast majority of obsolete equipment either becomes part of the scrap in landfills or is exported by recycling companies to other countries for disposal. According to the report "Exporting Harm", by the Basel Action Network, consumers would be surprised to know that "most companies that call themselves recyclers of computers and E-waste often do more waste trading than actual waste recycling, either directly or indirectly. Informed industry insiders have indicated that around 80% of what comes through their doors will be exported to Asia and 90% of that has been destined for China." (Basel Action Network, 2002). In essence, eighty percent of recycled computers are actually shipped to Asia

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